The Hunting Grounds is a multi-part series on the predators who made Fort Worth a dangerous place to be a woman in the early to mid 1980s. I strongly recommend you read the first three parts of the narrative, Preview which sets the scene, and Stranger in the Dark and Cold Hit which discuss serial rapist and murderer Curtis Don Brown. Originally part three was intended to Juan Mesa Segundo, but we will return to his story later. Instead we are moving out into the suburbs which seemed safer than the city, but that veneer of civility was an illusion.
Looking at their senior pictures side by side, Wesley Wayne Miller and Retha Stratton are the perfect, couple, the American ideal. Although the two were not dating, they were friends. Retha was a popular, bubbly cheerleader at Castleberry High. Miller was captain of the football team, a three-sport athlete voted “Best All Around Student” in 1981, their senior year. Miller wrote in Retha’s yearbook, “I’d like to get to know you better. Your [sic] the best looking girl in our school and I hope to see a lot of you this summer, Love Always Wesley.”
Castleberry ISD is in River Oaks, a small suburb north of Fort Worth known as a bedroom community for blue-collar families and for the nearby Carswell Airforce Base. Seniors are always glad to escape the confines of school, but for the class of ’81, they were especially glad to leave. Since the start of that year, a rapist had stalked the senior girls.
January 23, 1981, Susan Davis, 16, was home alone when a man entered her room. “He walks in with a stocking overt his head, his face, no shirt on, jeans with, you know, his zipper open. And at that point I realized something really bad was going to happen.” Dangerous Reunion, 48 hours
Susan ran, but the man caught her and began threatening her. “Don’t scream or I’m going to hit you.” The man began punching her in her face. He ripped her panties off. At some point, however, instead of completing the rape, he fled. She never found out what spooked him.
River Oaks police took a report, but with little physical evidence, there wasn’t much else they could do– but they did tell Susan it was likely someone she knew. “I had to go back into cheerleading. And I was paranoid all the time about ‘Is this person in the stands watching me?’”
The record isn’t clear what led police to this conclusion. A masked intruder would make most people think this was an attack by a stranger, but from the very start, police thought it was someone who knew the victims. Was it the assailant’s familiarity with the house? The fact he struck at a time when she would be alone? Or did they know that just by playing the odds, they were likely to be right, because most sexual assaults aren’t committed by strangers. In the 1980’s, the terminology was “date rape” which is an unfortunate choice. Rape and sexual assault have nothing to do with a “date gone wrong.” They are predatory, deliberate acts of violence. Now, the preferred terminology is “non-stranger” sexual assault. See, research and studies by Dr. David Lizak
In 1979, clinical psychologist Nicholas Groth set out to categorize different types of rapists. After working with both victims and offenders, he set out three specific types. First is the power rapist who derives comfort and satisfaction from dominating his victim. The second type is the anger rapist, who rapist is driven by rage against a specific group, women or men, causing him to lash out with violence. The third sort is the sadistic rapist who receives sexual gratification by causing pain to the victim. The types blend and rapists are most often a mix of these different elements.
The man who assaulted Susan showed multiple types. He gave specific orders to her, demonstrating control, but then hurt her, even as she complied. He left without completing the attack, which could have been a lack of confidence which is often found in power rapists.
Fortunately, studies have shown that most men aren’t rapists. How then do we account for the high level of rapes committed? One in four women is a victim of sexual assault. The answer is that most rapists are serial offenders. Studies show they often begin in adolescence and continue throughout their lives. This pattern held true here. The River Oaks Rapist wasn’t done with his one aborted attempt.
Retha Stratton graduated in May along with close friends and fellow cheerleaders Amy Moody and Lisa Gabbert. Retha and Amy got an apartment together and Retha went to work doing data entry for the Ralston Purina company . Unknown to them, another young woman was raped in November.
L. V. (a pseudonym), 19, was home alone on November 11, 1981 in the nearby town of Saginaw, when she received several mysterious phone calls. Each time, a male voice asked for a person she didn’t know and she told him that no such person was there. She fell asleep and when she awoke, it was to a nude man with a stocking covering his face kneeling over her in the bed. He ripped the phone from the wall and told her he was going to rape her. She struggled, even though the man said he would kill her if she didn’t do what he told her to. He physically assaulted her for some time before finally leaving. She immediately ran to her parents’ room and called her boyfriend. Sagniaw police processed the scene and came up with the first solid bit of evidence: a fingerprint on the telephone and in her bedroom. There were semen stains in her room, but this is before DNA. She described the man as muscular but only around 5 foot, six inches tall.
Police had a fingerprint, but the person it belonged to wasn’t in they system and without a known person to compare it to, that wasn’t much help. But it was something. The attack didn’t make the news.
It never occurred to Retha and her friends that they could become victims. Then on December 7, the unthinkable happened. Lisa woke up to find a man in her house, “And when I looked over I saw that someone was standing in the doorway with a red ski mask and panty hose over the mask. And he leapt on me. And we struggled. There was some choking. And then he tore back the covers. Opened my robe. And we struggled some more. And so he proceeded to rape me.” Dangerous Reunion, CBS 48 hours
Once again, the River Oaks Rapist demonstrate knowledge of his victim and her specific living situation. He walked right past Lisa’s disabled mother, who couldn’t move or speak, as if she were not even there, as if he knew she couldn’t interfere or become a witness. The rapist reminded Lisa of someone. She told a rookie patrolman that the man was built just like Miller, especially his arms. She didn’t think it was Miller. It couldn’t be Miller, of course, but she wanted the police to know that the attacker had the same exact build.
Miller’s girlfriend, Roxy McDonnell lived just across the street from Lisa and the very next day, her younger sister became a victim of the River Oaks rapist. Again, the rapist struck when the girl was home alone and once again, he reminded her of someone. According to the CBS 48 hours:
“And we had just said to the dad, ‘Well, he’s built like Wesley. And has arms like Wesley’s.’ And he says, ‘Wesley, come here.’ And he said, ‘Let me see your arm.’ And he pulls his arm over. He said, ‘You mean it look just like this?’ And we’re like, ‘Yeah,'” Lisa recalls. “And Wesley yanked his arm back and went upstairs. Without saying a word.”
Everyone was careful for a while. Shocked by the attack on their close friend, roommates Amy and Retha changed their locks, and didn’t come home alone, but gradually, they relaxed their guard. The River Oaks rapist stayed quiet for six weeks and life returned to normal for most people.
In 1982, Curtis Don Brown was still in prison for auto theft. Ted Bundy’s trials had faded from view. Instead recent news was the marriage of Lady Diana to Prince Charles, the identification of the AIDS virus, and the shooting of the Pope. The serial raps of teen girls in Texas suburbia was barely a blip on the local radar, much less the bigger news markets.
That would change on January 21, 1982. Amy came home to a scene of horror. A trail of blood led from the livingroom, down the hall into Retha’s room and back to the closet where her brutalized body lay partially in the closet as if she had fallen backwards. She had been stabbed 38 times with the majority of the wounds to her left breast. Her wrists had been slit and her bloody panties crammed into her mouth. She was nude from the waist down. The knife still protruded from her chest.
Locating the culprit wouldn’t take long. Miller’s pick up truck was spotted at Retha’s house around the time of the murder and he turned to his girlfriend, Roxy to help him hide the evidence. Claiming he had bloodied someone’s nose in a game of touch football, he handed her a pair of bloody jeans to wash. She took the jeans, but as soon as news of Retha’s murder broke, Roxy handed those jeans to the police. Police immediately began looking for Miller.
January 23rd, just two days after Retha’s murder, there was a sexual assault of a woman in Lake Worth. She received several phone calls from a male voice asking if “Ed” was there. The woman said there wasn’t a man in the house and hung up. Soon after, a young, athletic man around five foot nine inches and wearing a stocking over his head broke into the house and sexually assaulted her.
Miller was arrested later that day.
Within 48 hours, Miller was charged with Retha’s murder. He confessed to the Fort Worth detective C.D. Timmons, although he tried to lay much of the blame on Retha for her own murder. He told police that he went over to the house and Retha was “coming on to him.” He said they were kissing, but she refused to go further. Miller said this happened twice, that she would make sexual advances on him, but then back away. He said he lost his temper the second time and refused to stop “And we started fighting.” Next, he claimed Retha grabbed for a ‘ledge’ that was between the kitchen and the bedroom and a knife just fell to the floor. He thought she was maybe going to grab it, so he grabbed the knife instead and stabbed her. “I kind of lost my mind and I do not remember how many times I stabbed her . He said he hid her body in the closet and washed the knife, but then went back and slit her wrists to make sure she was dead. “I didn’t want her to tell on me,” he said. Then he thrust the knife into her chest and drove home.
As Retha’s heartbroken family and friends laid her body to rest, they at least had the relief of knowing that her killer wasn’t roaming free. What they couldn’t know, was that this was just the beginning of a decades long battle to keep Miller behind bars, a struggle that would make new laws and result in permanent changes to the way we treat sexually violent predators.
Next week, I will return with the next installment of the Hunting Grounds: Caging the Predator.
Information for this article came from the archives of numerous newspapers, chiefly the Fort Worth Star-Telegram , the Dallas Morning News, and AP stories. Additional information came directly from parole records and police reports.
*Content Warning: This story contains graphic descriptions of child abuse and sexual assault. Pseudonyms have been used for all minors in the story except for the victim in order to protect their privacy.
Summer in Texas means long, sweltering days. On July 1, 2013, 7:30 meant day was just tipping over into evening. The heat had loosened its grip ever so slightly, but the dark was still an hour and a half away. A thirteen year-old girl sat in the computer room of her Saginaw, Texas home, when she heard the sound of tires squealing and looked up in time to see a red pick-up truck racing away from a crumpled gray tarp near the corner of Roundrock and Cindy. The tarp clearly wasn’t empty. Its contents were bundled with what she thought might be twine.
Two neighborhood kids were out riding their bikes. The squeal of tires had also attracted their attention and they rode over. Curious, one boy lifted the edge of the tarp, then hastily dropped it. The teen girl came out and she also lifted the tarp, enough to see the semi-nude body of a child. Her screams attracted the attention of her father. He didn’t believe her when she insisted there was a dead child in the street and lifted the tarp to see for himself. He wished he hadn’t. The small girl was wearing a pink flowered shirt and nothing else. In addition to the tarp, she had been stuffed into a black trash sack. Her hands and feet were bound with red duct tape. Although he couldn’t see it, there were four plastic Walmart sacks were placed over her head and secured with more of the red duct tape.
The first officer who responded opened the bundle which had been secured with a brown men’s belt. He tore away at the plastic around the child’s face as he frantically checked for a pulse. But he could tell then that she was dead, and had been for a while at least. She was cold to the touch. She also was wet. Her fingers and toes were pruned like she’d been in the bath too long.
As the Saginaw police secured the scene, several noted an unwelcome sight—Tyler Holder, 17. Holder had many brushes with Saginaw PD and Detective Robert Richardson especially. Holder paced, watching the police work. There was something in the intensity of the way he stared that drew the attention of multiple officers who noted it in their reports. But when officers began canvassing the assembled neighbors, trying to figure out just how and when the body had been dumped, Holder managed to slip away.
Holder had a reputation as the neighborhood thug. He wasn’t in school and he wasn’t working. Judging by his Facebook posts, he spent most of his time smoking pot and causing trouble. A lot of the trouble was petty. He damaged property. He stole things.
February 21, 2013, he called Saginaw police to report that his mother’s guns had been stolen. He claimed three men had broken in but he scared them away. Police responded to investigate and quickly determined Holder’s story was not plausible. He claimed that the men all ran together out a back door, but on examination, the door was blocked and only partially opened. There was no way three grown men could have run out abreast. Also, it had just rained and the ground was damp and muddy around the house, but there were no shoe prints anywhere. When confronted with evidence that events could not have happened the way he described, Holder shrugged it off without seeming upset. He called his mother, who was not home, and told her the guns were stolen but the police didn’t believe him. Then he calmly hung up.
At his former school and in the neighborhood, Holder had a reputation as a bully. He was large and awkward, making jokes about rape and violence and he was known to carry a knife. A neighborhood teen recalled a time her brothers built a snowman. Holder came out and destroyed it. In retaliation, one boy threw a snowball at Holder who responded by pulling a knife and threatening him.
In 2012, Holder burglarized the house of one of his former principals. He was confronted later by the man who told him to return the property and he wouldn’t make a police report. Holder showed up with a pillow case full of the man’s belongings. Just days before the murder, neighbors had report a rash of car burglaries. Some of them suspected Holder, but there wasn’t any proof. It just seemed like the sort of thing he would do.
The mother of Holder’s on-again/off-again girlfriend, Christina, forbid him from coming over to the house. She didn’t really have a specific reason. She just knew he made her very uneasy. One former classmate told the Dallas Morning News, “He was the kid you were always really nice to because you didn’t know if he was going to come shoot up the school. He was an angry person.”
The source of Holder’s anger isn’t clear. His mother was was loving, but his father was absent. The reason depends on who you ask. His mother, Kimberly Holder, says that his father left the state as soon as she told him she was pregnant. The father, who now lives in Montana, claims he knew nothing about his son until he was served with child support paperwork in 2009. He claims he tried to get some sort of visitation, but was stone-walled and just gave up. Likewise, his maternal grandmother was involved, but his grandfather was estranged from the family. Holder and his mother lived with his grandfather and step-grandmother until a family dispute when Holder was five. Kimberly Holder moved out and they never spoke again.
There is no documented history of the type of abuse often seen in cases of a sexual sadist, no indications Holder was every physically or sexually abused. When asked at jail screenings, he denied having been abused by anyone. His family wasn’t wealthy, but he had a home, clothing, affection. At worst, he was a latch key kid, but that’s hardly a recipe for creating a predator. Yet from an early age, he rebelled against normal discipline.
He was a difficult child, always acting up in school. He publically disobeyed his mother, challenging her and cursing at her. In 5th grade, some parents stopped allowing him into their homes because he talked about inappropriate things like drugs and sex, things they didn’t want their children exposed to. He had trouble making and keeping friends.
By the time Holder was in middle school, the behavioral problems were severe enough that he was being sent to a juvenile justice alternative education school. Instead of allowing him to go there, his mother chose to withdraw him and home school her son. She said she was afraid of him being around other juvenile offenders, even in the controlled setting, but perhaps she was in denial about how deeply her son’s problems were rooted. She repeatedly refused counseling referrals, insisting that everything was fine, even as her son began running afoul of the juvenile justice system. He was referred to the juvenile courts, but those records are sealed. He was not sent to Texas Youth Commission for incarceration meaning his offenses were likely misdemeanor or non-violent offenses.
When Holder claimed that the house had been burglarized, His mother believed her son and even bought him a gun to protect himself if the house was broken into again. However, she also kept her own door locked at all times and kept her own gun in there, hidden in drawer. Perhaps she didn’t trust him all that much.
She worked long hours in Grand Prairie, quite a daily drive from Saginaw. She denied he was drinking or doing drugs, but all his Facebook posts look like this picture. They’re all selfies of him in various states of intoxication, most especially with marijuana. He also vented about his difficulties with his sometimes girlfriend, Christina. His mother described how he was usually asleep when she got up and left for work, and often left the house after she got home. Throughout, she has stubbornly clung to her insistence that he was fine.
His Facebook “likes” got a bit of media attention, but were fairly pedestrian for a teen. He liked metal music, horror movies, and violent video games. Adolescent fantasies are one thing, but there Tyler Holder had a very dark set of interests, one that might have been addressed if only his family had availed themselves of the offered counseling years before. This aspect of how he spent his time would not come to light until after his arrest. In addition to pot, theft, and video games, Holder filled his days with anonymous sex with strangers he met through Craigslist, both men and women. He also regularly surfed child pornography websites.
Holder’s grandmother thought he was doing fine as well. She lived in Decatur, but was in Saginaw visiting him the day before the murder and she had spent the night. On the morning of July 1st, she left while her grandson was still sleeping and bought food for the house and took her car for repairs. Holder stayed in bed until 2 p.m., which was apparently normal for him. He had lost his job at Sonic just the week before. None of his fast food jobs seem to have lasted very long. Employers described him as lazy and unreliable, plus there was always that something that set other people on edge about Tyler Holder, some wrongness in him.
He did have a few friends, most notably JR*. JR saw Holder the day of the murder, both in the morning and in the evening. When JR saw Holder after the discovery of the child’s body, Holder told him confidently that the police had found the body of Alanna Gallagher. Problem is, no one else knew that, not even her parents…because they hadn’t discovered she was missing yet.
While police were processing the scene at Roundrock and Cindy, Laura Gallagher flagged down a patrol car to say that she couldn’t find her daughter, Alanna Gallagher, 6. Alanna had last been seen around 2:30 pm. It was now 9:30 and completely dark. It wasn’t unusual for Alanna to roam the neighborhood alone. She was a common sight riding her purple scooter around. Everyone in the area knew her. She was an outgoing, friendly little girl who would often just show up, knocking on someone’s door wanting someone to come out and play.
The officer returned to the Gallagher’s house at 641 Babbling Brook. He noticed Holder pacing around up and down the sidewalk outside his house, which was 649 Babbling Brook, only two doors down. The officer stopped and asked Holder if he had seen anything unusual. Holder claimed to have been out fishing all day. He hadn’t been around.
Inside the Gallagher house, the officer was shown pictures of Alanna and heard about how she always wore a watch to make sure she was home by her 8:00 pm curfew. The officer swung into action, interviewing neighbors and searching records to discover any sex offenders who might live in the area. Laura Gallagher protested that she felt a little silly involving the police. Her daughter was probably just watching cartoons somewhere and had forgotten about the time. She thought Alanna had gone to with a neighbors’ twin four-year-old granddaughters, but when she went over, they hadn’t seen Alanna. The officer followed up with that neighbor anyway. The neighbor confirmed that she hadn’t seen Alanna since June 30th. She told police that Alanna and her older sister Mary* sometimes came over, but that Alanna would cry when it was time to go home. She never felt right about just letting Alanna walk alone own and would stand and watch her until she made it into her home.
Police checked at another house where Alanna often played. That neighbor confirmed that Alanna had come over to play with her grandchildren around 2 pm, but said the family was on their way out. Alanna insisted she would wait “right by their door” until they returned. She felt terrible leaving the child sitting outside her house, but there was nothing she could do. This was the last confirmed sighting of Alanna alive.
The Gallagher family received a great deal of attention, some for valid reasons and others because of their nontraditional lifestyle. They consider themselves polyamorous, meaning they are a family unit of more than two adults in a committed relationship. The family dynamics have very little to do with the case, other than to say there were three adults living in the house, two men and one woman and their style of parenting could best be called permissive. Karl Gallagher, Laura Gallagher, and their third partner, Miles McDaniel, had three children, Mary, 9, John*, the middle child, and Alanna, baby of the family at 6 years. John had some special needs and Mary, 9 was known to be maternal to her younger siblings. She checked on them every day while they were at school.`
The most troubling aspect was the lack of supervision in the household. Neighbors came forward to say that Alanna was always outside, playing by herself without her parents keeping track of her. She rode her purple scooter around, visiting everyone. Purple was Alanna’s favorite color. Likewise, the school reported that the family was not at all involved. The parents never attended school events. Indeed many of the teachers had never met the parents. The children didn’t participate in any clubs, sports or clubs. Teachers described Alanna as a happy, outgoing, and friendly child. She liked to wear dresses and wanted to be a princess. They found her especially needy, hungry for physical contact, always seeking hugs and praise. She clearly got herself ready for school. Her hair was not brushed and she wore mismatched clothing that was not age or size appropriate.
The same officer stopped by Laura Gallagher on July 1st remembered a previous incident with the family that occurred when Mary was 6. He received a call about a child playing unattended at a park. A family was concerned that the little girl was there for hours with no adult in sight.
The officer arrived and spoke with Mary, then tracked down her mother. Laura was irate when the officer insisted she come and pick up her daughter. She said that she frequently let daughter go play at the park to get out of the house and saw nothing wrong with her walking there. The officer pointed out how young the child was and that she had to cross streets with busy traffic and no sidewalks. He also tried to explain about child predators.
The small community of Saginaw might seem perfect, safe, but the police knew better, as did many of the long term residents. They were especially mindful of the risks because of the Opal Jo Jennings case in which she was snatched and murdered while playing outside her grandmother’s home. That case left deep scars on Saginaw. (For more details about that crime, see No Safe Place.) But Laura dismissed his concerns. She told the officer that such things don’t really happen as often as the news tries to make is sound.
The Gallaghers seemed to favor the concept of “free-range parenting” although they did not use the term. The idea is to encourage children to function independently with very little parental supervision.
July 1, 2013, the family first realized Alanna was missing at 6:30. Mary had made hotdogs for dinner. When Laura couldn’t find Alanna, she sent Mary out to look at the neighbors. She returned without her sister. No one knew where Alanna was. They ate dinner, then went to look again.
Laura and Mary drove around awhile, but they didn’t spot Alanna. Laura sent Karl a text. When he returned, Laura and Miles were playing World of Warcraft. They had decided just to wait for it to get dark and hope Alanna would come home. Karl and Laura made another trip around the neighborhood, but again, no Alanna. They went home and Karl made himself a dinner. The parents went around and knocked on doors at around 9-9:30 pm, according to neighbors. That’s when Laura spotted the police car and flagged him down.
A dispatcher put the two scenes together: a child missing, the body of a child found. She notified both sets of officers and soon the identity of the girl in the tarp was confirmed.
Saginaw police sought help from larger agencies including the FBI. They processed things methodically, but one name came up almost immediately. Tyler Holder was interviewed and he told the detective that he slept in until around 2 pm. He claimed he watched some TV shows and then left to look for a job. This was a different story than he had given the officer investigating Alanna’s disappearance. It also didn’t match the evidence police possessed that Holder’s car wasn’t seen driving away in the afternoon.
Police honed in on him as a suspect almost immediately, but they didn’t press. They could afford to be patient. Alanna’s autopsy report was gruesome reading. She had been sexually assaulted anally. Bruises to her face, arms and torso indicated further violence. The cause of death was suffocation due to the four plastic bags placed over her head and wrapped with duct tape. Her body was then submerged in water for a period, possibly in an attempt to cleanse her of biological evidence. This attempt was unsuccessful. DNA was obtained from anal swabs and from a belt. Also collected with Alanna’s body was a roll of toilet paper, crumpled and dirty that was inside the tarp. Her clothing wasn’t missing, but rolled up in the tarp with her body, however, her purple and pink watch wasn’t there. Alanna never took it off. Had the killer kept it for a souvenir?
Saginaw reeled from another brutal child murder, another little girl taken from close to home. Parents were afraid to let their children outside. A makeshift memorial sprang up on the street where her body had been found. Neighbors, friends, and complete strangers brought stuffed animals to remember her. As days turned into weeks, there was a vigil with purple balloons and a $10,000 reward for tips. Holder attended the vigil wearing a T-Shirt that read “WANTED.” Too keep the case in the public view, supporters started a purple ribbon campaign. DNA was taken from all the neighbors voluntarily. No one wanted to be the person who refused. Even Tyler Holder let them swab his cheek.
While the public demanded answers, police were close to being able to provide them. The cardboard center of the toilet paper roll was analyzed by FBI labs and was determined to belong to a batch shipped to Texas and sold in an Arlington Costco. Kimberly Holder had a membership to Costco. The police collected the trash put outside the Holder home. The bags matched the one Alanna’s body had been stuffed into, same brand. In the trash was red duct tape. Kimberly Holder had some work done on the house recently and a silver construction tarp had been spotted outside her home by a neighbor. That tarp was no longer there. Animal hairs were collected from Alanna’s body. Dog hairs, to be exact. The Holders had a dog of the right type to have left those hairs
All these small pieces were forming the picture of Alanna’s killer, like a puzzle being filled in, but what police really needed were results from the anal swab. DNA would complete the image.
July 19, 2013, Saginaw PD was surprised to receive another emergency on Babbling Brook Drive. This time it was a fire. They arrived to find that someone had set fire to memorial in front of the Gallagher’s home, and also to Karl Gallagher’s car. Believing it to be arson, the ATF brought out specially trained dogs who confirmed the presence of an accelerant. Who would be so cruel as to torment the family grieving the loss of a child? The family had a lot of detractors over the past few weeks, but police wondered if someone had been hateful enough to lash out at the family. The family hadn’t shied away from the publicity. They had been out front, begging for people to come forward with any information and defending their lifestyle, which had become the focus of so much criticism. The fire had spread from the car toward the house, damaging its exterior and placing the family in danger.
Around this time, Holder’s friend JR came forward with his mother. A few days after Alanna’s murder, Holder had given him a cell phone, saying he’d gotten a new one. JR asked if there was anything that needed deleted, but Holder said no. JR later found some alarming things on the phone. There were searches for “best child pornography” and photos of Holder in women’s underwear and naked with a garden hose inserted into his anus. There was also evidence of Holder’s Craigslist history with his anonymous hook-ups. JR cut off contact with Holder and deleted pictures, but he finally told his mother and she had insisted they bring the phone to the police.
Just one day after the arson, the police had what they needed. The DNA results were in and confirmed police suspicions. Both the anal swab and the men’s belt that had been used to bind the tarp were confirmed to belong to Holder. They drafted a search warrant for the Holder residence to look for:
In addition to the search warrant, police obtained an arrest warrant. Because they knew there were guns in the house, the FBI Safe Streets Task Force was tagged to take Holder into custody. Holder opened the door as if he were surrendering, but abruptly pulled his mother’s 9 mm from behind his back and shot 22 year Arlington Police veteran Charles Lodatto who was part of the FBI taskforce investigating the case. The bullet struck Lodatto in the groin, severing his femoral artery and lodging in his hip. The injury could have easily been fatal, but officers quickly applied a tourniquet to keep him from bleeding to death. He remained in ICU for some time, but trauma surgeon Dr. William Witham who treated Lodatto said their quick actions saved his life.
After he shot Lodatto, Holder was shot in the neck and immediately transported to the hospital. The scene was locked down due to the shooting and first processed as an active crime scene. The search warrant would not be executed until the following day. Serving the warrant filled in many of the missing pieces. They found the red duct tape, numerous used condoms, matching toilet paper rolls, latex gloves, garden hose lengths, and most damning, they found Alanna’s watch. The also found gas cans and evidence tying Holder to the arson at the Gallagher’s house.
They also found evidence that Holder had been planning on either “suicide by cop” or trying to run. On the nightstand by his bed, in a sealed envelope, he had left a letter for his mother that some interpreted as a suicide note. “Mom, I love you and I’m sorry, but I have to leave,” the note read. “I took your shot gun and your hand gun. I want you to know you are not responsible for this.” He tells her the he can no longer “hold back” the things going on in his head and how he wants her to live out her plans for them. “I love you so much. You were a great mom. You gave me everything I ever wanted. Don’t let this ruin the good memories of me and us together. I just wasn’t made for this world. Tell Granny and Bubba I love them. I will leave my car in a safe place in good shape. If I live I will write you.” The portions about leaving his car in a safe place indicates that he may have been more literal when saying “I have to leave.” He planned to run for it, but the police came for him before he had the chance.
July 31, Holder was well enough to have a conversation with detectives. He couldn’t speak due to a tracheotomy, but he could write his answers to questions. After being read his Miranda warnings, he mused about whether or not to speak with police. He both wanted a lawyer and wanted to talk right then. That wasn’t possible, but he wanted to prove he could be cooperative. At one point, Detective Richardson told him he did not expect a lawyer would want him to talk to the police about dumping the body. He once again told Holder it was his decision whether he wanted to talk. Holder responded by writing “I didn’t drop her.”
What followed was a nonsensical story about a man who looked just like Karl Gallagher, but wasn’t Karl Gallagher. Holder said the man, a stranger, showed up with Alanna. He was evasive about her condition, saying she was alive when she got there, but “she left dead.” He elaborated that she was injured and had been beaten. He claims this man brought her over and had sex with her there and killed her, but he didn’t witness it.
When the detective asked questions about Holder sexually assaulting Alanna, he played dumb, saying things like “I don’t know what you mean.” Detective Richardson then explained about the DNA. Holder admitted having sex with her after she was dead. He claims the stranger asked for the bags and duct tape. He said that she was bound and dead when he turned her onto her stomach and raped her anally.
His story, already unbelievable, took strange twists and turns. First, he claimed that he yelled at the man to stop beating her, that she was hurt all over and he tried to stop the man from having sex with her. Then he says that the man made him have sex with her, or told him things “that made sense at the time” but that he no longer remembered, things that convinced him to have sex with Alanna. Holder said he went to the restroom and when he came out, the man had left, carrying away the body of Alanna Gallagher.
The detective summarized for Holder: A stranger brought an injured child to you, and taped her up, convinced you to sexually assault her, then killed her and carried her body away. Holder confirmed that was his story. Even if the story wasn’t so ridiculous on its face, there was not a shred of evidence to suggest another person being involved. All the DNA, all the items found with Alanna, all the items left behind, everything tied her to Holder. Holder was charged with capital murder for Alanna’s death, attempted capital murder for shooting Charles Lodatto, and arson for starting the fire at the Gallagher’s house.
Holder’s trial was scheduled for October 2014, but in September, prosecutors announced a plea deal. A new Supreme Court decision ruled that mandatory life sentences for defendants younger than 18 were unconstitutional. Holder was 18 at the time of trial, but he had been 17 at the time he committed the crime. Afraid the case might fall into a legal loophole, prosecutors consulted with the family.
The charge of capital murder was reduced to plain murder. He still received a life sentence, but with the possibility of parole. In addition, he received 20 years for the arson and another 40 for trying to kill Charles Lodatto. That last sentence was stacked on the life sentence, meaning even if Holder received parole for the murder case, which he would be eligible for in 30 years, he would have to serve his time for the attempted capital. He would have to serve at least half that sentence. In essence, Holder would have to serve 50 years before he could even think about being released.
For the Gallagher family, this meant they would be spared a trial and further vilification in the press and social media, but it was a sad realization of how dangerous the world really was.
“Nobody thinks you’re down the street from someone developing into a monster,” Laura Gallagher said. “There’s not just our kids, but so many other kids we’d see out playing. And you think of all the times that all these kids were walking past that house, and you feel like it was a time bomb slowly building that we didn’t know about, and it went off on our baby.”
When I was a child living in a small, rural Texas town, the rule was be home by dark. Summers were long and hot. We ran around with the other children in the area, fishing in the creek and playing in yards up until the fireflies came out. They were our cue to hightail it home and eat dinner. I remember the kidnapping of Etan Patz. In 1979, six-year-old Etan vanished while walking the short distance to his school bus stop. The news was shocking, but after all, he was in Manhattan, a world away from our tiny town. Still, parents watched us as we waited for the school bus in the mornings.
October 1, 1993, we were rocked again by the kidnapping of Polly Klaas, taken from her own home during a slumber party. I was a law student at the time and followed the case closely. It was a parent’s worst nightmare, but that was California for you and we all knew nothing like that could happen here. But we did start locking our doors.
Amber Hagerman was much closer to home. She was snatched off her bike in Arlington, Texas in 1996. By that time I was a prosecutor toying with the idea of parenthood. Amber may have been in Texas, but she was in Arlington which was turning into a large city and she was riding through a grocery store parking lot. Parents kept their kids closer to home after that. No more riding bikes away from the house.
March 26, 1999, six-year-old Opal Jo Jennings was playing next to her grandparents’ house with her two-year-old cousin Austin and a four year old friend, Spencer. She was wearing her pink Barbie shoes. Pictures show a child with sparkling blue eyes, thick, dark hair, freckles, and a ready grin. As the children played outside, a man drove up in what Spencer would remember as a “purpledy-black” car. The man had a pony tail, facial blemishes, and wore a red baseball cap. He said “hi” and got out of the car. Without warning, he grabbed up Opal, punched her hard in the chest, threw her in the car and drove off. Spencer ran inside and immediately told the family. An Amber alert was issued.
Opal was originally from Arkansas, but she and her mother had been living with her grandparents in Saginaw at the time. Saginaw is a small North Texas community, around 10 miles north of Fort Worth, best known for its Train and Grain Festival. Three railroads converged in the agricultural community. At the time of Opal’s disappearance, there were around 10,000 residents. Saginaw wasn’t anything like the big city. This sort of thing didn’t just happen in Saginaw. If there was a crime, well, it was surely just the proximity to Fort Worth. Saginaw was a safe place.
16 law enforcement agencies, including the FBI, were involved in the search. Information flooded so the authorities began the daunting task of sorting through more than 2,500 tips. Volunteers were assembled to search the fields, but for months, there was nothing. Opal remained missing.
One of those many tips came from a Wise County probation officer. It was the break investigators had been praying for.
Richard “Ricky” Lee Franks was convicted in 1991 for molesting his brother’s 8-year-old daughter and had admitted sexually abusing another young female relative. Franks struggled with completing his seven year probation and it had to be extended. As part of the probation, he was evaluated for mental health. He was found to have a low IQ. The report by psychologist Darrell Horton classified Franks as “a pedophile with mild mental retardation.” He also wrote that Franks reported having sex with little girls on multiple occasions, but that sometimes he fantasized about his urges instead of acting on them.
On April 1, Franks’ probation officer noticed a change in him. This was Franks’ first meeting after the Opal Jo Jennings kidnapping. Franks showed up for the meeting with his ponytail cut off. His hair was now short. He was clean shaven. The probation officer remembered Franks previously wearing a red ball cap all the time. He never saw him with it again. He also knew that Franks drove a car similar to what was being described in the media. He called in a tip to the police line.
Weeks later, police got to that tip. When they arrived to meet with Franks, they noticed he drove a black Cougar, a glossy car that might be considered “purpledy-black” by a young child. They also learned that Franks’ brother had lived on the same street as Opal’s grandparents. Franks was familiar with the neighborhood. He had visited his brother not a hundred feet from the place Opal was taken. His brother moved in December 1998. It’s possible Franks had seen Opal and other children playing at the location.
A promising lead to be sure, but police didn’t have enough yet for an arrest warrant; However, Franks had a traffic warrant. Police picked him for that on August 17, 1999 around 8:30 pm. Instead of being taken to the police station, he was taken to the special crimes section of the Tarrant County Criminal District Attorney’s Office where he was met by Danny McCormick, an investigator with TCCDA who told him he would like to talk about the disappearance of Opal Jo Jennings. Franks agreed with everything they asked. He agreed to his car being searched and he agreed to a polygraph. He also waived his 5th amendment rights and agreed to talk with the investigators.
McCormick waited for the polygraph examiner, Eric Holden to arrive. This wasn’t wasted time. Although he didn’t question Franks during this time, McCormick was building a report with him. Holden arrived around 10:30 pm and it was show time. Before administering a polygraph, the examiner must first determine if the subject is voluntarily agreeing and if they are capable of taking the polygraph. They cannot be medicated or intoxicated. They can’t be suffering under a severe mental defect. The polygraph examiner needs to set a base line by asking questions with known answers. They need to be briefed about the case so they can formulate a few simple questions. The phrasing of these questions is key. Polygraphs are subjective and can be fooled if the subject is a sociopath who is skilled at deception, but also if the question is poorly worded.
By 2:00 am, Holden was ready to start the test. Half an hour later, it was concluded. The tested indicated deception by Franks. Holden and McCormick informed Franks of this and asked him to explain his story in more detail. Franks started talking. He talked for two and a half hours until he said he was tired. At that time, not all interrogations were recorded. Holden showed Franks five pages of notes he had taken and Franks wrote on the pages that this was correct. McCormick then typed up Franks’ statement. He was read it aloud and then read it to himself. They went over the confession step by step. Once satisfied, Franks signed it.
Franks was taken before a judge. On the way, he began having second thoughts and told officials that “words were put in his mouth and he hadn’t done the things contained in the statement.” McCormick asked Franks if the things Franks had told him to put in the statement were true and Franks then admitted that they were. While waiting outside the magistrate’s room, Franks again began recanting his confession, then he recanted the recantation.
On March 26, 1999, I went to Saginaw Texas to see my brother, [Danny], when I saw Opel [sic] Jennings and two other kids (a boy and a girl) playing in a field beside a house. This was about 4:00PM in the afternoon or a little later. I was driving a Ford Cougar, and was by myself. I went by Danny’s house, saw the girls and a boy outside playing in the field. I stopped to talk to them and Opel [sic] said, “where are you going?” I was in the car and Opel [sic] was talking to me through the fence, she asked where I was going, and I told her that I was going to see if my brother was home so I could go visit with him. I told Opel [sic], “If he’s not there, I’m going home.” She said, “they might be at work,” and I then asked her how she was doing and she said she was doing good in school. She said that she was getting good grades. She came up to the car on the driver’s side, the driver’s door was open, she came up to the door, gave me a hug, and shook my hand. I asked her if she was passing and she said “I hope so.” I then told her that if she was doing good in school, then she would. I said, “I hope you pass.” The other kids wanted her to hurry up so she could play with them. I said, “you need to get back and finish playing what you‘all are playing.” They were playing some kind of ball.
She reached in the car, I thought she was going to try and grab me, I didn’t know what she was going to try to do, so I pushed her back and said, “what are you trying to do, I’m not the one to be doing it with.” I didn’t want to do nothing that would get me in trouble, she was just a kid. I don’t see myself doing nothing like that. I was afraid she was going to make a pass at me or get me to take her somewhere. She was wanting me to take her to the store, she went around the front of the car to get in the passenger side. I was afraid she wanted me to take her to have sex with her or something. I took her to the store, she got in the passenger side, the other two kids were outside playing. I told her I was going to bring her back so she could finish playing with the other two kids. I took her to the convenience store a block from the house, I sat in the car, and she got something to drink.
She bought a coke, then she came back to the car, she said “thank you for bringing me up here,” but I said, “I won’t do it again.” Opel [sic] tried to move over toward me, I didn’t know what she tried to do. She tried to grab me between the legs, she grabbed my dick. She wanted me to fuck her, I told her no. She said “fuck me.” She tried to take her pants off, I told her “no.” She asked me why and I said “because I don’t do that.” She asked me why and I said, “because you’re too young and I could get in trouble for it.”
“She unzipped my pants, took my dick out, she had it in her hand, she went down like she was going to go down on it.” I pushed her back, I put my dick back in my pants. She was sitting beside me, when she went to bend over I pushed her back. I said “I’m not going to have sex with someone younger than I am.” I told her that she needed to get out of the car, this happened on the way back from the store. I took her to her house, and left her off the same place where I talked to her at. I don’t know if she went in the house or not. I just wanted to get away from her. When I dropped her off, she gave me a hug, and I left, the other two kids were in the field playing.
Clearly this confession is problematic in many ways that makes me believe this is indeed Franks version of events and not one someone told him to say. The conversation he recounts between himself and the six-year-old child, talking over her worries about passing classes is ridiculous. The language and sexual activities he ascribes to her are likewise ridiculous. They are the fantasies that could only be imagined by someone who considers children sexually available. In my career, I’ve ready many statements and listened to many recorded confessions of child predators and this statement is sadly typical. Pedophiles describe children in adult terms. They talk about how the child wanted it, how the child was the initiator and how they, the adult, are simply a victim of this child who preyed upon their desires. The confessions frequently aren’t so much a confession—notice Franks doesn’t actually admit doing anything wrong—as they are a justification for the perpetrator’s action. He feels the need to account for Opal being seen with him, for her being in his car, without admitting to doing bad.
Because Opal’s body hadn’t been found, Franks was charged with her kidnapping. Frank’s brother, Rodney, went to see Opal’s grandmother and apologize for his brother. As he tearfully told the newspapers, “If my brother done this, I wanted to come and be with this family.”
At trial, Franks’ attorneys pointed to the lack of forensic evidence. Their stumbling block was that explicit and ridiculous ‘confession.’ They argued it was false and made much of Franks’ low IQ. Prosecutors brought numerous witnesses to rebut this. They showed Franks had graduated high school, married, and successfully held several jobs. They called Franks’ previous employer to the stand to talk about how he worked at the fried chicken joint taking orders and making change without needing a calculator. At the time of the offense, he was working as a motorcycle mechanic. Prosecutors also called Holden, the polygrapher to the stand. Holden described how he offered Franks a false scenario to see if he would agree to anything. Holden said Franks angrily disputed that scenario, objecting that he hadn’t done those things at all and again describing what he said he had done.
In jail while awaiting trial, Franks apparently liked to talk. Two different jailers and an inmate all testified about conversations with Franks here he told them his story about taking Opal to the store and dropping her off.
Another prisoner testified that Franks told him that he drove past the crime scene with his wife after the abduction—just to see how close the house was—and he thought that was why police had targeted him. This same inmate also testified that Franks later said he had stalked Opal for a year and went over “to get satisfied” by which the inmate assumed Franks meant to have sex with the child. Franks said he had to “take care of her” when the child wouldn’t stop screaming. This last inmate received a plea deal in exchange for his testimony and I find his story not particularly credible. It doesn’t match the story he told everyone else.
Ultimately, the jury convicted Franks and sentenced him to life in prison.
December 30, 2003, horseback riders found a skull just 10 miles from where Opal was abducted. DNA testing confirmed it belonged to Opal Jo Jennings. The cause of death was determined to be a blow to the head. A new search was launched. Searchers found more bone fragments and the remains Opal’s pink Barbie sneakers. For family members it was both painful and a relief. They could finally lay her their child to rest.
I was a young mother when Opal was taken. By that time, we finally understood that there are monsters in the world, walking with us, driving down our streets. These monsters can look like our neighbors, like police officers, like doctors, like anyone really. We could lock our doors, keep our children close, teach them about strangers, but there was no such thing as a place they couldn’t be touched. My children were raised knowing there was no safe place in the world. I mourn the loss of those innocent lives that taught us this hard lesson.